Sunday, November 21, 2010

"Coraline": ☼ ☼ ☼

It's funny and it's creepy, it's exciting if a bit plodding, it's a musical with clever lyrics but almost no music, it features bravura performances and songs that are meant to make you chuckle but not touch the heart. The truest thing we can say about "Coraline," by David Greenspan and Stephin Merritt, is that it is wonderfully different and refreshing because of it. You are never bored, even when you're not sure what just happened.

Much of this is due to the remarkable performance of Maya Donato, an eleven year old who has already been acting for seven years. She is the perfect Coraline, a thoughtfully whimsical child whose boring life in a new home leads her to discover her 'other' family, with her other parents, her other fellow house dwellers, and even her other cat, who now talks.

Our regular reviewer would never stop here to mention Brian Yates Sharber's excellent performance as the cat, but our 'other' reviewer is doing so. Sharber may have typecast his way into a career of graceful animals with cool shoes who can clearly sing like a bird when requested.

Coraline's fellow dwellers in her new home include Miss Forcible and Miss Spink (Susi Damilano and Maureen McVerry), Mr. Bobo (Brian Degan Scott), and of course Coraline's mother and father (Stacy Ross and Jackson Davis). Ross, in particular, brings down the house with her final wicked witch number "Falling...Falling."

This Wizard of Oz comparison is not accidental. Dorothy and Coraline both fantasize about living in that other world just over the rainbow, or in this case, through the locked door. And both are so happy to come home to Kansas.

You're going to enjoy Stephin Merrit's music, but the songs are barely songs. Short, sweet or wry, always clever but never emotional, the turns of lyric phrases and off-center rhymes will make you smile. But you'll find it hard to believe you just heard twenty five songs (some reprises). There's the one about the toys, and the rats, and the two old actresses' song, and "Falling." And there's one at the end that the whole cast sings.

You may or may not enjoy the fact that all the music comes from plunkings on toy or composed pianos. You won't get to clap much -- because the music feels like an afterthought, like an optional side dish where the main course is clever lyrics, and they clear 'em away in a hurry.

But this is not your mama's musical, though the story recalls many older fairy tales. Neil Gaiman's novella is well known and has already been made into an animated film, so you may be familiar with it already. We liked it. Our 'other' reviewer likes music in musicals so he is not so sure -- but we both think you should go see "Coraline."

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Coraline" Three Stars. Maya Donato, Stacy Ross and Brian Yates Sharber earn a star apiece, with special mention for Bill English and Matt Vuolo's stage design team whose clever set made a lot of action possible within a small space.

San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through Jan. 15

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Cavalia": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

You have never seen anything like Cavalia. A combination of horse show and Cirque du Soleil, the horses grab the limelight but the humans managing them are astonishing as well.

Cavalia takes place in a tent near the UCSF Medical Center. They have built a stage wide enough for the horses to work up a full head of steam as they thunder across. A city person cannot get enough of it. But the horses do so much more than run. They balance, they canter, they dance. They stand on their hind legs like the Lone Ranger. They nuzzle each other on cue. The amount of hours that must go into training these animals staggers the imagination.

And don't forget the acrobats. They ride the horses right-side up and upside down, on the sides of their saddles, under them, bareback, barefoot, they do flips and pommel-horse moves on them as the horses are at full speed. They ride on two horses at once, or four, or six, or eight. Aerialists suspended from wires dance, fly and pirouette around gracefully cantering animals.

Sylvia Zerbini's Grande Liberté - well, you won't believe it, that's all we're going to say. It takes up most of Act Two.

Everything doesn't work so well -- the ballets, for example. White horses, white flowing gowns, white flowing manes, blonde flowing hair, it's Elrond and Arwen at the Gates of Rivendell. You expect elves and wizards.

Which is the other part of the Cavalia experience: creator Normand Latourelle was the founder of Cirque du Soleil. So all of those irritating things about Cirque are also omnipresent in Cavalia: the music, for example, that sounds like a French Soft Jazz History Network Special. The costumes -- the beefcake and cheesecake we understand, this is show business. But why would daredevil horsemen and horsewomen be dressed in leaves like Peter Pan? Oh, and the smoke machines. The leaves and snow falling from the ceiling. If each of the horses could light a candle, they would.

But they don't. They just run and dance and nuzzle. In the end it's all about them, and their riders. And Sylvia Zerbini.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Cavalia" Four Stars with a bauble of despair. The show rates four stars for its uniqueness, and it is easy to overlook its crass commerciality. You really should see it.

But we add a bauble because if you want to take your kids, and you do, you are going to have to cancel those Corian counter tops. This is not an inexpensive production to mount, but the bottom line is Cavalia is designed to be a world-class attraction, with glitz and smoke machines to match. Somebody has to pay for it. Do you take your family to Cirque du Soleil? If so, Cavalia's prices will not seem out of line to you.

A word to the wise: PARK IN CAVALIA'S OWN LOT. There is no street parking, the nearby parking lots have broken meters and rapacious parking ticket motorazzi on the prowl. You will not escape their wrath.

If you have a horse, saddle him up. But definitely don't park him on the street unless you are willing to sit on him until the last metermaid cruises by at 8 o'clock, when the show is already starting.

White Big Top, China Basin, San Francisco
$64.50-$139.50. Some special pricing available.
Open-ended run

Monday, November 15, 2010

Marilyn Pittman: "It's All the Rage" : UNRATED

"Heartbreaking and hilarious," is how comic Marilyn Pittman's new solo show "It's All the Rage" is subtitled. Sadly, it's neither. Her personal tragedy was a real one, but an audience has to empathize with any actor who wants to go up on stage and talk about it every night, albeit with deserving angst and several deliberate walks across the stage to the lighting cue, a la David Ford's direction.

Pittman plays several characters. Perhaps the most visual is her arthritic mother, whose gnarled hands in front of her body reflect her repressed helplessness. Pittman's father is also done well, a caricature whose anger will play itself out in the central action of the show.

But the character who has the hardest job is the narrator herself. Marilyn Pittman is angry and the show is about that anger, reflected in her tough gal attitude. At one point she says "I never talk about my brother. Let me tell you something about him." We then hear how much she dislikes her dysfunctional Cuban sister in law.

Anyone who is going to see this show, after all, has read the promo material. We already know about the tragic events that took place in 1997. On stage, Pittman attempts to keep it a secret for awhile, but we know. It is the performer's job, in this reviewer's opinion, to make us care a little more, to have some kind of window into the story teller's reasons for telling this macabre story.



The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division has chosen not to rate "It's All The Rage."


"It's All the Rage"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia, San Francisco
Through December 5

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Or," : ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The modestly dressed 17th century beauty (Natacha Roi) walks onto stage and begins a soliloquy in Elizabethan English:

"...our play will shortly ricochet between
A dense array of seeming opposites:
Spy or poetess, actress or whore
Male or female, straight or gay -- or both..."

Aha, we say, we are back in Restoration England. And then she says:

"O! Fire exits! There and there, all right?
Are your cell phones off? Yes? Very good.
Compose yourselves for pleasure, if you will.
Cue the lights, let never time stand still."

And off we go into one of the most delightful, intelligent and witty shows we have seen in ages. Liz Duffy Adams's "Or," with that tiny title, roars huge onto the crackerbox stage at the Magic Theater. The three actors command our attention as they act out a farce written in the King's English but with clear nods to our present day of real and imagined horrors. Plus f-bombs.

Loretta Greco is a really good director. Characters pop in and out of scenes and costumes. Actors play multiple roles. The bounder hides in an armoire but reappears as the King of England. The pace never stalls.

Natacha Roi is the center, as writer Aphra Benn, who longs for happiness but always has just one more line to finish first. Her two love interests, King Charles II and vagabond William Scott, are played with relish by Ben Huber. The King is as sensitive as the bounder is desperate. Charles has not yet been able to score the final goal with Aphra, but her new friend, actress Nell Gwynne (Maggie Mason), is more than happy to stand in -- actually, lie in -- for Aphra.

Maggie Mason slays us. She kills us. (She also murders William Scott.) In her four roles as the jailer, Nell Gwynne, Lady Davenant and Aphra's lady-in-waiting Maria, Mason continually manages to exit one scene just long enough to wiggle into her next costume and return to the stage as her new character, guns blazing.

If you're wondering about the not-exactly-euphonious title, it comes from what Lady Davenant, the prospective buyer of Aphra Benn's still-to-be-completed new play, councils Aphra against doing:

"...I won't have one of those "or" titles, you know what I mean, one of those greedy get-it-all-in titles, 'the something something' OR 'what you something'...make up your mind and pick one, thank you."

OK, we did. It's called "Or,."


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Or," Four Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. Liz Duffy Adams gets one star pinned to her bodice for brilliant writing, the three actors split the second and third stars, and Loretta Greco and the entire production team, including costumer Alex Jaeger and Set Designer Michael Locher takes home the fourth. The extra BANGLE of PRAISE is for the brilliant way Miss Roi is put into her gown at the opening of the show. The techies become part of the performance -- one more way this show touches us in an intimate way.

What a cast, what a writer, what a show.

Magic Theatre
Fort Mason Center, Bldg. D, San Francisco
Through December 5
$20-$60 (There is a Pay What You Can Night, and also inexpensive side seats, which in this theater are excellent.)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Burning Libraries: Stories from the New Ellis Island" ☼ ☼ ☼

Part theater piece, part dance and part aerialist performance, "Burning Libraries: Stories from the New Ellis Island" is a delightful antidote to the waves of hysteria battering the media over the issue of immigration.

Walking into the theater you are asked to take tiny stars and stick them to a large world map on the wall, signifying where your grandparents came from. And then you sit down in your theater seat and watch an intriguing production cobbled together from interviews made by grade school children with their own grandparents. These families have arrived in America from around the world. The tales have been edited but remain in the kids' (and grandparents') own words.

There is no dialogue from the stage -- only the recorded stories, none more than a few minutes long. Dancers Danny Nguyen and Jesus Cortéz, and aerialists Azana and Susan M. Voyticky illustrate these tiny stories with carefully choreographed movements. The combination is touching, sometimes funny and always involving. High points are Voyticky's aerial illustration of a story about racism in the Jim Crow South (seen on top); the beautiful aerial sail high above the stage, to signify the sail on the tiny boat in which a child's grandfather was escaping from Vietnam; the African tale of two birds falling from the tree; and of course "My Grandma Vicky invented the burrito."

Here we see Voyticky and Jesus Cortéz in a piece entitled "Arriving" -- with suitcases and looks of wonder upon their faces.

The stories come from all over -- Russia, Yemen, Vietnam, Cambodia, Guatemala, Mexico. Many recall jail sentences, bribery to border officials and other hardships, but in the end all are success stories: the grandparents got here and the kids are already writing about it.

Helen Stolzfus, who is author and director, put the show together with help from co-author and composer Albert Greenberg. It is short -- only one hour running time -- and very, very sweet.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Burning Libraries: Stories from the New Ellis Island" Three Stars, and they are solid ones. It's a story everyone will love, children to grandparents and all in between. Sadly, it's a short run in San Francisco but there is an early December weekend at Laney College in Oakland.

Thank you to Taija Lynn for the photos of the aerialists.
"Burning Libraries: Stories from the New Ellis Island"
Z Space at Theater Artaud
450 Florida Street
Wed.-Sun. Through November 14; also Dec 3-5 at Laney College, Oakland
$20-$30 ($5 for students and seniors!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

"Palomino": ☼ ☼ ☼ SUGAR LUMP

There are shows you see and afterwards they seem more than they seemed at the time. And there are those you really like when you see them and the next day you can't exactly remember why. "Palomino," a solo performance by writer and actor David Cale, falls somewhere in the middle.

He plays an Irish gigolo named Kieran McGrath, who somehow has gotten hired to be a male prostitute, catering to a clientele of middle-aged, wealthy New York women. We are asked to believe that this small, balding actor is a burbling cauldron of sexual desire. Every woman that meets him is knocked ga-ga, falling open legged at his advances.

Cale is so good that he damned near pulls it off. His lead character is someone of supreme confidence, happy to be a foreigner in New York City. His clients love it when he talks dirty to them in an Irish accent.

But he is more brilliant when he plays the various women with whom he has had relationships, both for hire and for fun. His Vallie, whose story is really the central one in this show, is someone we start off pitying and end up cheering. Likewise, the "nerd-in-a-pretty-blonde's-body" with whom Kieran manages to have sex behind a rock while Vallie is sleeping, is someone we see in a different interrelated light later on. It is particularly entertaining when the characters' stories overlap.

We could do without the ending -- but you can decide how you feel about that. We're not sure what this final relationship is supposed to suggest. The power of love? Attraction? The aphrodisiac of horses? All three, maybe.

We live in the best solo-performance town in America. One of the true blessings of David Cale is he does not follow the popular emote-at-all-costs formula. We do not anticipate what is coming, and since there is basically no staging, nor costuming -- and just a few video backdrops which add very little --it is quite pleasant to be surprised by the twists and turns in the story.


But how to rate this show! It is more than two stars and less than four stars, but is probably somewhat better than three. So -- the San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Palomino" Three Stars with a Lump of Sugar. The sugar is for the horse. Kieran McGrath apparently gets plenty of sugar and doesn't need any more from us.

Aurora Theater
2081 Addison St., Berkeley
Through December 5

Thursday, November 4, 2010

"Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Everybody is going to take away something different from Tarell Alvin McCraney's "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet," and that is the wonderful thing about it. The story is thick with African myth and Louisiana drawl. The actors, many drawn from A.C.T.'s Master of Fine Arts Program, are young and riveting. They pull us into a drama that is much more than it seems on the surface.

Young Marcus (Richard Prioleau) is confused about his sexual identity and is being tormented by a vivid dream, which we see in the opening. He attempts to seek out someone who can not only interpret the dream for him, but also tell him if his recently-buried father, about whom Marcus's mother refuses to speak, might also have had these sexual confusions. In other words -- was his father "sweet" too?

Marcus's two best friends, Shaunta (Omozé Idehenre) and Osha (Shinelle Azoroh), want to know about Marcus too, but he's not talking. Osha has had a crush on him for a long time. When she finally realizes Marcus will never be her beau, she picks up on the first player who comes along, Joshua (Tobie L. Windham III). The problem is that Shua, as he is known to Marcus, is batting from both sides of the plate. It confuses things, but in the end clarifies them too.

You can't take your eyes off Margo Hall, who plays a triple role, including the fabulously crazy Aunt Elegua, who alternates between swearing a blue streak and praising the Lord, and also Marcus's frustrated mother Oba.

But the very best part of this story is the dream. In the end, it's not about sex and it's not about Marcus at all. We find ourselves observing a world of water about to pour from the sky, as a community faces its own struggles with life and death. "All I got is these dreams and memories," Ogun Size (Gregory Wallace) says just before the curtain. It's true for all of us.

Ratings: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet" Four Stars. It is that good. There are a few niggles that amount to very little -- Marcus seems too tentative in the opening Act, for example, and you had better concentrate on the Louisiana dialect or some very funny lines will fly right by you. But the story is memorable, the acting and direction spot-on and the humor sharp. "Ray Charles could see that," says classmate Terrell (Jared McNeill). "And he blind AND dead."

"Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through November 21